Mental health suffers when we surrender to car culture

Maria Hernandez, from Montgomery County, Maryland, was always afraid she wouldn’t know how to use public transportation. But since deciding to learn, she rejoices in being “able to relax, read a book, and enjoy the scenery – which you really can’t do when you’re driving.” No doubt Hernandez is onto something that has been very difficult for most throughout the U.S. to muster since the auto industry began seducing us into its lifestyle nearly a century ago.

Of all the many things we surrender when we commit to making most, or all, of our trips by car, the most important may be the most difficult to measure: our mental health. Mental health, our state of well-being in which every individual can realize his or her own potential, allows us to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and make a contribution to our communities. When mental health suffers, the damage can manifest in many ways, from depression to eating disorders to suicide. But our transportation habits – formed long ago but with endless opportunities to change – are some of the greatest tools we have to make sure our mental health remains sharp into old age. We can walk or bike to places and – bingo – that officially counts as regular physical activity. That means these behaviors are associated with improved attention, memory, and cognitive speed across our lifetimes.

What does the research say?

While numerous studies have documented the effect of physical activity on academic performance, extensive research on the connections between transportation and mental health is more difficult to find. Some of the most intriguing evidence includes:

  • Danish study that intended to explore the effects on school children of the food they ate for breakfast and lunch ended up discovering that the way they traveled to school was far more crucial. Those who bicycled or walked performed much better on tests than those who rode in a car or on public transit.
  • British study found that physical exercise and “active leisure” of a person aged 36 had a significant effect on the levels of memory decline for that same person later on between 43 and 53 years of age.
  • In a study on walking and cognitive function, researchers found that older women who walked the equivalent of an easy pace at least 1.5 hours per week had significantly better knowledge, attention, memory, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, and comprehension, and less cognitive decline than women who walked less than 40 minutes per week.
  • Many studies have found that being a frequent user of transit can affect mental health, from reducing emotional stress by improving people’s access to education and employment to providing an option that many people consider less stressful than driving. “These mental-health benefits are difficult to quantify but potentially large,” said Todd Litman, a researcher for the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.
  • Italian researchers found that just simply living near transit lines could be good for the mental health of older residents in Turin.
  • Other studies have shown that bicycling helps ward off Alzheimer’s, depression, Parkinson’s, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Bicycling has also been proven to make people happier (and, one could assume smarter, since Albert Einstein supposedly came up with his theory of relativity while riding his bicycle).
  • Mobility Lab lists several other studies linking active transportation to improved mental health.

There are many things we can do to become more active in our travels. And one positive sign that we may get help from high up is the recent announcement that the U.S. Department of Transportation will reward $40 million (with Paul Allen’s Vulcan company pitching in an additional $10 million) to the mid-sized city that figures out how best to fix its transportation system. After all, once our crumbling and disconnected infrastructure is improved, cities can get down to the business of making it easier for people to choose the healthier, sustainable, and more productive ways of getting around town. All of this would lead to not just wealthier individuals, but wealthier communities. Cornell University found that, for one, “unwalkable communities cost Americans $190 billion a year in health-care costs.”

It all starts – or should start – at the top. And the federal government has taken at least one positive recent step. As part of the massive new Every Student Succeeds Act, children will not be prohibited from “traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike,” as long as the parents have given permission and it’s allowed by local law. It may be sad that we actually have to write that into federal law, but it also may help bring back the good old days when kids were much more active in getting to school.

At the local and regional levels, leaders need to do something completely different than what has been done for decades: prioritize people who walk, bike, and use transit over people in cars, according to Chris Hamilton of Active Transport for Cities. He recently wrote at Mobility Lab, “If we make our streets more people-centered, and if we help make it easy for more people to walk, bike, and take transit, our cities will be more green. More prosperous. More physically healthy. And yes, more mentally healthy.” This article originally appeared in the Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health.

Photo: A family rides in a cargo bike in Arlington County, Virginia (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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